Religion, Women’s Status, and Self-image

Dear Kimberly,

As you pointed out so well in your last letter, girls and women have had access to education for a relatively short time in the span of history.  And in some places, they’re still denied such access.  So I can see why you’re thinking about this a lot as you begin your studies at Yale Divinity School this fall.  What an exciting time this is for you!

Jimmy Carter, Religious Teachings, and Discrimination against Women

I wonder if you’ve been following the various commentaries and blog discussions about former U.S. president Jimmy Carter’s op-ed piece in the Observer (July 12, 2009) explaining the decision he had made in 2000 to sever his lifelong ties with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).  Among other denominational positions he disagreed with at that time, he was rejecting the SBC’s official pronouncements that opposed female pastors and instructed wives to submit to their husbands.

But last month, as Carter reiterated his reasons for having left the denomination, he was writing as one of  The Elders. The Elders, as described on their website, are “an independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by Nelson Mandela, who offer their collective influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity.”

One of the Elders’ most recent projects is promoting women’s equality around the world; and as part of that effort, they are pointing out that gender inequality is often rooted in religious teachings.  Not everyone likes to face up to that fact.

While acknowledging that religious teachings and values have often been a force for good, the Elders point out another side of the story:

Sadly, [religious and traditional values and teachings] have also been used throughout the centuries to justify and entrench inequality and discrimination against women and girls. These teachings and practices have been abused by men to give them power over the female members of their families and women across their communities. As a result, women have lost control of their bodies and their lives.  (From Equality for Women and Girls)

Carter’s work with the Elders and his Observer article have been much discussed recently, both negatively (by those who refuse to acknowledge religion-based gender discrimination) and positively (by those who have observed or personally experienced such discrimination).  In his article, he made clear he was not singling out a particular religion for criticism.  He wrote:

This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. It is widespread. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths.

Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women’s equal rights across the world for centuries.

Jimmy Carter is by no means anti-religious but has spoken out as a man of strong faith and convictions. Even during his presidency, he did not hesitate to apply to himself the label born-again Christian. He has faithfully taught Sunday school, and his religious values continue to inspire him to work for  peace and justice in the world.  But his article decries the abuse of religion and the damage it does when it is commandeered by those who use it for keeping groups (any groups) down rather than lifting them up.

Awareness of Religion’s Role in Gender Inequality Is Not New

Over many years, others from diverse backgrounds have made the same point that Jimmy Carter and the Elders are making.  In her preface to Religion and Sexism (Simon & Schuster, 1974 edition), Roman Catholic feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether said that a failure to pay attention to how religion has had an impact on women in society “leaves a serious gap in the understanding of the dilemma of women’s liberation, for religion has been not only a contributing factor, it is undoubtedly the single most important shaper and enforcer of the image and role of women in culture and society” (p. 9).

I also remember watching some time ago an episode of the old CBS television program, Look Up and Live, which was broadcast Sunday mornings during the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. On October 20, 1974 the guests were Harvard theologian Harvey Cox and Playboy magazine publisher Hugh Hefner.

According to the notes I took during the broadcast, Harvey Cox commented, “My main objection to the magazine is its view of women.  Women are presented as accoutrements of men rather than seen as full, complete, equal, independent persons in their own right.”

Hugh Hefner then shot right back: “Well, I think you can thank organized religion as much as anything for teaching that attitude toward women.”

I remember thinking, Ouch! Christianity has some bad press to overcome!

The nineteenth century women promoting education for women whom you wrote about in your last letter, Kimberly, were of course well aware of these issues, too.  They believed that neither reason nor religion, rightly understood, taught that women were intended to be the “satellites of men” (as the educator Emma Hart Willard once wrote).

But a lot of people believed that indeed religion taught exactly that, and they were quick to cite Bible verses to prove that women’s lives were expected to revolve around men and men’s wishes, needs, and accomplishments.  Hadn’t Eve been created from Adam and for Adam to be his helper?  And after the fall of humankind into sin, wasn’t Eve told that her husband would rule over her?  Such arguments were often cited in debates about educational, occupational, and voting rights for women.  They weren’t confined to discussions in churches.

Abolitionist William Loyd Garrison, publisher of The Liberator, an anti-slavery newspaper, was present at the fifth National Women’s Rights Convention in 1854 when an antifeminist named Rev. Henry Crew spoke out.  The Reverend Mr. Crew stood up and insisted that he felt it was his duty to tell those gathered that it was “clearly the will of God that man should be superior in authority and power to the woman” and that nothing was more plainly taught in Scripture than woman’s subordination.  (You can read more about it in Aileen S. Kraditor, ed., Up from the Pedestal: Selected Writings in the History of American Feminism. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1968.)

As biblical and theological arguments and counter arguments ensued, William Lloyd Garrison reached a point where he had apparently had enough. He stood up and said that “consulting the Bible for opinions of women’s rights is of little importance to the majority of this Convention,” explaining that few would be interested in arguing “dry doctrinal points.” After all, they had come together to work on political and social issues. Then he added something that continues to be a message for us today.  Garrison said:

But with the American people, the case is different. The masses believe the Bible directly from God; that it decrees the inequality of the sexes; and that settles the question. There is no doubt that there are many persons connected with the Protestant churches who would be with the [women’s equality] movement were it not for the supposed Bible difficulty.” (From Volume 1 of the six-volume History of Women’s Suffrage, as quoted in Kraditor, pp. 111-112).

How Did Early Feminists Handle Bible arguments?

I’m writing all this, Kim, because you and I both know that arguments from the Bible are still used to promote inequality in many circles — not only with regard to the roles and relationships of women and men but also with regard to civil rights and marriage equality for gay and lesbian people, to cite another recent example.  (Since, as you know, I’ve already written about that elsewhere, I won’t take the time to elaborate more here, but just mention it as one more example of how the Bible is used in public and political discourse in spite of the separation of church and state.)

In the 20th century, biblical arguments were frequently seized upon to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment.  In earlier centuries, biblical arguments fortified efforts to bar women from equal access to education, or to bolster the right to keep slaves.

Now in the 21st century, “The Bible clearly teaches. . .” or “The Scripture plainly states,” are still common refrains  — usually with little regard for context or interpretation, as proof texts are hurled about like weapons. Whatever the Bible supposedly “clearly” teaches is then repeated again and again by others –even including some who themselves may never open the pages of a Bible. If asked, “Where does the Bible say that?” they often will say, “Well, I don’t know where, but I know it says it.”

What I’m saying here is by no means intended to criticize the Bible or put down those who take it seriously and sincerely want to ascertain and follow the will of God. You and I certainly ourselves take Scripture and our faith seriously, Kimberly, or we wouldn’t be writing this blog as Christian feminists!  But at the same time, we both shudder to see the Bible used in ways that hurt people rather than empowering them.

Many of the early feminists were likewise women and men of faith and were similarly not willing to surrender the Bible to those they believed were interpreting it in ways contrary to its overall message of love, compassion, justice, and peace.

So what did they do?  Some feminists, then as now, of course, thought that ignoring religion and dismissing such arguments as irrelevant was the best way to go.  But others put effort into countering the arguments of those who thought the matter was settled by their own particular interpretation of Scripture.  Instead, these feminists presented alternate interpretations.  They also used logical arguments, sound scholarship, and persuasive rhetoric to make their points, just as many Christian feminists and feminists of other faiths continue to do.

Years ago, as I looked through some of the writings of the early feminists and tried to analyze their overall ways of dealing with Scripture, I came up with at least seven points of emphasis they made. I wrote them up in an article called “The Feminists and the Bible, ” which was published in Christianity Today (February 2, 1973).  If you’re interested in exploring them, I’m sure you can find the article in the Yale Library or any other library that has back issues of Christianity Today. Maybe we can discuss some of these points in some future exchange on this blog.

Many Feminists Care about Integrating Faith and Feminism

Rather than viewing faith and feminism as at war with each other, I think it’s important to give attention to integrating one’s faith and one’s feminism. Neither has to be given up.  Many people are yearning to experience such integration but aren’t always sure whether or not it’s possible and, if so, how to go about it.

This question comes up from time to time even on websites that are not usually devoted to religious issues. On the popular website Feministing, which draws large numbers of young “third wave” feminists, discussions about whether one could be both Christian and feminist came up in their Community Forum in both May and July this year.

And a few years ago on, the “Ask Amy” column featured a question by a reader who wondered how she could be true to her faith tradition and to feminism at the same time.  The columnist, Amy Richards, coauthor of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future, provided a thoughtful answer about balancing faith and feminism and added these words:  “I am actually sorry we didn’t address this more in Manifesta — it is something that has come up repeatedly since the book was published –clearly there was/is a need to address these issues more.”

And recently I read Living on the Boundaries: Evangelical Women, Feminism, and the Theological Academy by Nicola Hoggard Creegan and Christine D. Pohl (InterVarsity Press, 2005).   Christine Pohl, who teaches in a conservative Christian theological seminary, wrote that “gender concerns are never really settled” in that setting. After having taught there for sixteen years by the time of her coauthoring the book, she wrote, “I have seen many changes, but each year we also address the same issues again. With a new crop of students annually, with the move of several conservative denominations toward restricting women’s leadership roles and with the impact of the megachurch movement and its generally conservative views of male and female roles, gender issues remain an important topic” (p. 21).

I know you and I have each dealt with these issues at some time in our own lives, Kimberly, and you continue to run into the same questions about Scripture and feminism again and again today as you and your friends hear sermons about gender hierarchy as God’s plan.  We’ve discussed it frequently here on this blog. And I know you’ve helped other young women sort out ways they can explore interpretations of Scripture that take into account the cultural setting, time of writing, and the circumstances in which the books of the Bible were written and the intent of each of the various authors, rather than pulling passages out of context.

Repressive Interpretations of Sacred Writings Hurt Women

I’m eager to hear your thoughts on all this.  And in my next letter, I’d like to pick up where I’m leaving off in this one and address specific ways that certain interpretations of sacred writings have been harmful to women.  Such harm can happen in any faith tradition, as Jimmy Carter and the elders are pointing out; but I’ll confine myself to Christianity, since that is my own faith and the one I’m most familiar with.

Hearing certain sermons and reading certain writings that present women as having been assigned by God to a lesser role than that of men can be excruciatingly painful to girls and women — notwithstanding all the condescending statements about different-roles-but-equality-in-worth that are offered to soothe over the hurt.

M. Carey Thomas, who was president of Bryn Mawr College from 1894 to 1922, told of having internalized in her earliest years the teachings that girls were not as capable as boys and worried that she would not be able to go to college, which she wanted more than anything else in the world.  “I remember often praying about it,” she said, “and begging God that if it were true that because I was a girl I could not successfully master Greek and go to college and understand things to kill me at once, as I could not live in such an unjust world.”  Even as an adult she said, “I can never read many parts of the Pauline epistles without feeling again the sinking of the heart with which I used to hurry over the verses referring to women’s keeping silence in the churches and asking their husbands at home” (quoted in Kraditor, pp.90-91).

Many women today in certain religious settings have similar feelings, and I hope we can talk about that pain more fully and discuss ways we can help women build a sense of self-efficacy so that they areempowered by their faith rather than blocked by it and kept from being all they were meant to be.

Well, I’ve gone on and on and never did comment on everything in your last letter!  I appreciated hearing about your need for  writing retreats to get away from distractions and interruptions and give yourself time, quiet, and space just to write, much as Virginia Woolf pointed out in the book you carried with you, A Room of One’s Own. I notice over at Feministing that Courtney Martin just got back from a writing retreat, too. Hers was at the Bellagio Centre in Italy, and she also wrote about Virginia Woolf’s emphasis on women’s need for unencumbered time and space to write.  I’ve often thought about Tillie Olsen’s Silences in which she showed how women have so often been expected to care for everyone else and give only any leftover time to their writing so as not to be considered “selfish.”

There’s always so much we could talk about!  But I’ll stop before I think of something else.  Have a wonderful first semester at Yale, Kim.  I’m so thrilled for you and looking forward to your sharing your experiences and new insights.

Your friend,

Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Letha Dawson Scanzoni (1935-2024) was an independent scholar, writer, and editor, and the author or coauthor of nine books. In 1978, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, one of the earliest books urging evangelical Christians to rethink their views on homosexuality (updated edition, 1994, HarperOne). More recently, Letha coauthored (with social psychologist David G. Myers) What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005 and 2006). Another of Letha’s most well-known books is All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty (Word Books, 1974; revised edition, Abingdon, 1986; updated and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 1992). Letha served as editor of Christian Feminism Today in both its former print edition (EEWC Update) and its website for 19 years until her retirement in December 2013.


  1. A very thoughtful, sweet apology for the Bible’s and organized religion’s obvious and deliberate sneers at women over the ages.

    IF we are to embrace the idea that, hey, these biblical diatribes against women that have so shaped the relationship between women and men and society must be excused by the cultural matrix in which they are found, there are a heck of a lot of excuses that have to be made. Too many.

    Besides, the Bible is a collection of overwritten histories and proverbs whose authors are unknown and whose works have been distorted over time to reflect the notions of whoever is rewriting them, a little like the Telephone Game showing how messages get distorted in the retelling.

    The good goals of the Bible are outweighed by the vindictive things it requires people to think and do to each other. It’s a mixed bag at best and has and still does terrible things by dividing people so that they kill each other and worse.

    In short, I’m sorry to suggest that maybe the Bible should be put back on the shelf and the 10 commandments survive and be promoted. Period.

    I do not believe the Bible and organized religion does anything to promote peace on Earth that is not outweighed by its dark side. I do not believe we should try to portray the Bible and organized religion as anything but self-promotion. Look at the religious pedophiles and their hierarchies that still do not repent. Look at the religious enmities and wars that are still being fought over which religion is The Truth.

    All that should be strung up for what it is, and we should work for equal treatment under the law in the Constitution leading to simple love for one another. It’s way overdue.

  2. Letha,
    Yes, there are many women who care a great deal about integrating their faith and feminism. Thank you for what you are doing to explain and advance that position.

    I followed some of the links in your letter and found them interesting and enlightening; I recommend other readers doing the same. My local library has past issues of “Christianity Today” so I located your article. It is such a good, concise handling of “the Bible problem.” I am passing on a copy; it is as applicable to the present as it was in the ’70s because women today encounter the same arguments as they did then.

    I too look forward to Kimberly’s next sharing of impressions and insights. The best to you both, MM


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